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I.F. v. City of Vallejo

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 12, 2019

I.F. et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF VALLEJO, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          CAROLYN K. DELANEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Presently pending before the court is plaintiff I.F.'s motion to compel discovery production. (ECF No. 27.) This matter came on regularly for hearing on July 10, 2019. The parties filed a joint statement regarding the discovery dispute on July 3, 2019. (ECF No. 28.) Maya Sorensen appeared on behalf of plaintiff I.F. and Timothy Smyth appeared on behalf of defendants. Plaintiff R.F. was not represented at the hearing, but Ms. Sorensen indicated that plaintiff R.F. joins in the motion to compel.

         At the hearing, Lieutenant Steve Cheatham was present with a complete copy of Officer Ryan McMahon's personnel file from the City of Vallejo Police Department, which the court reviewed in camera. After reviewing the file, carefully considering the parties' joint statement and the applicable law, and good cause appearing therefor, the court FINDS AS FOLLOWS.

         II. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs bring this 1983 survivor action against the City of Vallejo and Officer McMahon, relating to the use of lethal force against Ronell Foster, which occurred on February 13, 2018. (See generally ECF No. 8.) Plaintiffs bring claims for violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment, as well as a Monell claim, and several pendant state law claims. (Id.)

         On August 8, 2018, plaintiff I.F. served her Request for Production of Documents and Things (Set One) (“RFP1”), which included a request for Officer McMahon's personnel file, including hiring, performance evaluations, background investigations, and his mental and physical condition at the time of the incident. (ECF No. 28 at 2, 4.) Defendants produced some responsive information but withheld other information, raising various objections including relevance and asserting the official information privilege. (See ECF No. 28-1.) The parties met and conferred regarding the disputed information on May 30, 2019 and on June 18, 2019. (ECF No. 18 at 2.) The pending motion to compel ensued. (ECF No. 27.)

         Plaintiffs seek to compel production of “information regarding Defendant McMahon contained in RFP1 Request Nos. 6 (Defendants hiring and background investigations), 8 (Defendants' job performance evaluations and supervision [from seven years prior to the incident to the present]), and 10 (Defendants' physical and mental condition during the incident).” (ECF No. 28 at 5.) The parties dispute whether the information sought is relevant and, if it is relevant, whether it is subject to the official document privilege. (See generally, ECF No. 28.)

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “[p]arties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1).

A. Relevance

         Before determining whether the information plaintiffs seek is privileged, the court must first determine if it is relevant.

Although in general the party seeking to compel discovery bears the burden of showing that his request satisfies the relevance requirement of Rule 26, the court in Kelly v. City of San Jose, 114 F.R.D. 653, 667-68 (N.D.Cal.1987), concluded that in the context of civil rights excessive force cases against police departments, plaintiffs may suffer great difficulties if courts impose demanding relevancy standards on them. Because it is unlikely that such a plaintiff would know the contents of confidential police files, the court suggests that it should be “sufficient for a plaintiff to show how information of the kind that is likely to be in the files could lead to admissible evidence.” Id. at 667-68.

Soto v. City of Concord, 162 F.R.D. 603, 610 (N.D. Cal. 1995).

B. Official Information Privilege

         A disclosing party may seek to withhold relevant discovery if such information is privileged. “The scope of an evidentiary privilege in a 42 U.S.C. [§] 1983 civil rights action is a question of federal law. State law may provide a useful referent, but it is not controlling.” Breed v. U.S. Dist. Court for N. Dist. of California, 542 F.2d 1114, 1115 (9th Cir. 1976); see also Kelly v. City of San Jose, 114 F.R.D. 653, 655 (N.D. Cal. ...


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